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The Biology of Sin

    This interesting dialog between Jesus and His disciples has confused many and maybe that's why I have never heard a sermon expounding on it. Yet, it is so remarkable and full of implications and understandings: "As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'" (John 9:1-2, NIV).

    One otherwise insightful expository literature I studied used this to make a case for reincarnation. The writer plausibly reasoned that in order for a person to have been born blind at birth due to his sins, he must have lived in a human body in a prior life. After all, can a developing baby in the womb sin? And Jesus didn't correct His disciples' question, asking in effect, "What do you mean, was his blindness due to his sin before he was born?" Nor did Jesus respond, "Are you asking if a child can be punished and made to suffer because his parents sinned?" No, Jesus took the disciples' question as a legitimate one, replying, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (v. 3).

    While the notion of reincarnation as described in the Hindu religious tradition cannot be supported by the Judaic-Christian Scriptures, and the scriptures are quite clear that ongoing reincarnations cannot be a way to holiness, perfection or redemption, a case can be made for reincarnation of certain individuals for specific missions. For example, Jesus was quite clear that John the Baptizer was the prophet Elijah with whom Jesus was talking during His transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:1-8). Elijah's return was prophesied by Malachi (Malachi 4:5-6) and confirmed in Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Luke 1. Revelation declares the prophetic mission of two witnesses yet to come: "These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want" (Revelation 11:6, NIV). Controlling the rain is a signature of Elijah while Moses was the instrument through whom God turned "the waters into blood and [struck] the earth with every kind of plague" as he did in Egypt prior to the exodus. Not coincidentally, it was these two men who conversed with Jesus about His mission during His transfiguration. This is evidence that the people of the earth will again hear the prophetic calling to the Gospel and to repentance by these two ancient heralds of God's will.

    But to imply a case for reincarnation for the blind man Jesus used "so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" is a dangerous stretch that takes us away from important understandings about the causes and dynamics of sin. Later in this Reflection, I will suggest a psychological/biological translation of the disciples' interesting question. First, let us ponder a well known passage in King David's penitential psalm.

    "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). Some translations say, "In sin I was conceived." This assertion is affirmed in John 3:6, Romans 5:12, and Ephesians 2:3. Of course, this goes against the philosophy of "tabla rasa" or blank slate. It also ruffles the ego feathers of all of us who fuss over how "beautiful and innocent and pure" a baby is. We are the same ones who, years later, exclaim, "What happened to that innocent and angelic child? Where did this monster come from?" This is particularly painful to those who have provided the most nurturing and healthy environments for their children. And confusing.

    To look for a cause is natural and typically has us wondering about where the blame falls. We painfully ponder how much we have inadvertently contributed to our own "wrongness" or to that of our children. We forget, or never understood or believed, "In sin I was conceived." What, indeed, does that mean? (It certainly doesn't mean we are products of a "sinful sexual liaison." Children born from a rape or from an adulterous relationship are no more sinful than those born out of a loving desire of two happily married people.)

    Here is where psychology and medicine can help in understanding ancient spiritual language. The modern code word for "sin" is "disorder." After over a decade of determination and round the clock labor of many collaborators, the human DNA code has been "mapped." Upon looking at it, one definitive conclusion is that we are flawed and disordered beings, starting right from that penetration of one disordered sperm into one disordered egg..."In sin I was conceived." The nature and way the disorders are manifest require time. Some are evident upon birth. Some at five years, some at fifteen, some at twenty or later. The human genome is a picture of our fallen state, fallen from the grace of perfection. Some theological schools call it "original sin." We humans, of course, in the spirit of the Tower of Babel endeavor, hope to "engineer" the DNA structure and fix the flaws, moving towards perfection. There was only one person who physically walked this earth with a flawless DNA because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Creator, the only truly "unblemished" Lamb. A thousand or million years of genetic engineering cannot approach His purity for reasons to be considered in another Reflection. For now, let us just consider that humanly defined perfection is not God's. And our society will kill human life that does not conform to its notion of perfection.

    Until recently, scientific debate of "genetics versus environment" was quite hot. Today, most will articulate the position that both play a vital part in behavioral development. The debate does continue, however, about which is the heavier player in determining behavior. We do know that some people are dealt a very bad genetic hand of cards, but compensate well and live good, productive lives from a secular viewpoint. Others may be born with a comparatively wonderful and blessed set of genes, but "grow into bad people." As the saying goes, and it's true, "Hay, nobody's perfect." This observation may beg for another variable to be added to the "genetics versus environment" paradigm: spirituality. Jesus did say, "You must be born again" or "re-newed" in the Spirit, or your biological and spiritual genetics will do you in, regardless of how much you approach your notion of "perfection" or how much faith you have in your own will and determination.

    Normal neurological development also plays a part in the commission of sin. Our culture considers the approximate age of seven years as "the age of reason." Children are then expected to know right from wrong in basic behaviors. Of course, their brains are not yet fully developed and may not be until many years after adolescence.

    A distinguishing feature of the human brain are the large lobes in front, aptly called the frontal lobe. Reason and decision making occurs there. The frontal lobe takes time and the right environmental conditions to fully mature and integrate with the more primitive parts of the brain. This accounts for a lot of the impulsivity of adolescents and a not so great grasp of long term consequences of their decisions, to the exasperation of their parents.

    Our secular laws recognize this and generally are more liberal in dealing with juvenile misbehavior. What is interesting, though, is when the crime is severe the legal system pushes to prosecute the juvenile as an adult. But severe crimes indicate a very undeveloped frontal lobe or a significant disconnection that prevents the frontal lobe from overriding the more primitive part of the brain. This seems to mean that an undeveloped function of reason is more severely punished than a more developed one. This doesn't make sense in how we treat our youth, but I'm not surprised. Many laws and procedures do not make sense and when they don't work, society just applies them with more zeal. If something isn't working, doing it more and harder will make it work even less.

    We can postulate that some people, including some children, are just plain evil. But generally, I think the devil's direct intrusion is given more credit than deserved. Sin is programmed into our cells, penetrating into our souls, starting with the egg and sperm of our parents. The devil doesn't have to turn a seemingly innocent baby into a sinner. He can just stand back and happily watch the process, and help it along if he's not satisfied with the progress.

    Environment as a factor in frontal lobe development was mentioned earlier. In classic Greek and Renaissance education, body, soul and spirit were addressed. The study and participation in the arts, athletics, sciences, literature and mathematics (and I don't mean arithmetic) are critically important for brain development. Not many universities, few high schools and about no vocational schools offer a classical education. Courses in ethics, religious studies, moral development are considered fluff since they won't make the student money in the job market.

    Public school funding now targets the popular "back to basics" rally and music and the arts are cut from the curriculum. So our children learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic (and still can't do it well) for a few hours a day, then typically fill an average of eight hours a day with passive television or "interactive" electronic games, that mostly involve decision making about who to kill first and how fast can it be done. Brains are starving for nourishment!

    Renown psychologist Carl Jung was a student of Sigmund Freud but separated from his teacher because Freud attributed behavior to primitive drives and unresolved conflicts, mostly sexual in nature. One of Jung's notable contributions was the notion of a collective unconscious shared by all humans. These are "archetypes" and "mythologies" common to all societies without respect to time or environment. The Scriptures do refer to the sins of one generation being "visited" upon succeeding ones.

    The Native American tradition held a strong belief of a shared, collective frontal lobe decision making process: The decision of the tribe were assessed as to its impact on the seventh generation of their children. It evidently worked since their land, for hundreds of generations, was passed on in the same condition with its plentiful resources and with a strong ethic of personal accountability to the tribe and land. No "moral relativism" for them! No "what is right for you may not be what is right for me" or "your truth is different than my truth."

    Their spirituality (knowledge and practice of the consciousness that the Creator is part of all facets of daily life, and grace being said not only before eating a meal but also before cutting firewood to cook it) governed all decisions. Of course, we cannot hold up the "noble savage" as the ideal sometimes portrayed in our movies and historical literature. They were "conceived in sin" too, and had their wars and ego-driven conflicts, along with their profound sense of the sacred in all things.

    It took only three hundred years for the European settlers who "discovered" this "new world" and these spiritually conscious people and their pristine land to overtake and decimate a simple and Creator-honoring way of life and natural resources (His creation) in not only North America, but South America, Middle America, western tropical islands and much of the arctic regions. The indigenous people never needed an "Environmental Protection Agency," a "Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals," "Child Protection Services," "Family Preservation Services," the "Justice System," prisons, and a stack of legal codes that would reach to the moon if piled on one another. The sins of one generation, whose frontal lobe didn't see past its own greed and ego, were indeed heaped upon its children and their children. In less than one hundred years we have created a system of justice that favors the wealthy and costs everyone years of productive living and hundred of thousands of dollars (often per person) to secure the right of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

    The answer to our legal, financial and social problems, like unaffordable health care and environmental destruction? Just more laws and more money. Sin upon sin. The Scriptures declare only "love covers a multitude of sin."

    Isn't this creating a picture of Ephesians 6? "We wrestle not against flesh and blood..." That was often the case in a simple, "primitive" culture where two men could fight during the day then retreat together at night to share drink and food in mutual respect and reconciliation. "...but against principalities, powers and rulers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." These powers of evil do not rest and do not relent to reconciliation. They pursue their agenda right into the hell fire, right into Armageddon, like those persons with bad frontal lobes who cannot see the consequences past the here and now.

    They are like those persons whose frontal lobes are anesthetized with alcohol, drugs or other (like electronic) self medications that numb the pain of being fully and truthfully conscious of the fallen, disordered and sinful self. We have a society that has not matured beyond adolescence. Our society should be "tried as an adult." Thank our God He has more wisdom and mercy for His children than we do for ours.

    Jesus doodled in the sandy dirt while pausing to answer the accusers of an adulteress. Some thinkers suggested He was writing the sins of the accusers for them to see. I would not take such liberty of interpreting what Jesus was doing. I found myself doing something like that to create in meaningful pause in people's thinking. The accusers where waiting, holding their breath for a response to a very tricky question. "Let you who are without sin cast the first stone [at her to kill her]." He then kept doodling in the dirt, not looking up. He could hear them leaving in silence. Alone with the sinner, Jesus looked up at her and asked, "Where are your accusers?" Gone. They were all sinners, the righteous and unrighteous. But Jesus did tell her, "Go, and sin no more." In other words, "You can overcome the sin bestowed upon you to which you succumbed." But what did He say before that? "They don't condemn you. Neither do I." "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2, NIV).

    Paul provides a partial list of the "sinful nature": "...sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like" (Galatians 5:19-21, NIV). Most of these, and we can include "gluttony" cited in other places in scripture, are determined to have a genetic basis. Addiction (including food, gambling and sexual perversions), conduct aberrations and rage, narcissism and passive/aggressive behavior are indexed as psychiatric disorders.

    What is notable is how Scripture places these expressions of the sinful nature on equal parity. Also notable is how most preachers and Gospel expositors do not. Adultery and prostitution are hammered at loudly. Gossip is typically glossed over. This may also be part of the genetic predisposition in our Gospel ministers. While most would loudly and persistently denounce the evils of pornography, and rightfully so, we haven't heard equally passionate attacks on overeating or selfish ambition or discord or envy. The overweight preachers (and there are many) who eat much more food than their bodies need (even those in mission fields among the starving) are more likely to condemn sexual innuendo on television than gluttony. Typically, gluttony is a joke among many fat Christians. But the disorder is no laughing matter, a source of tremendous suffering, to those inflicted with bulimia (and its counterpart, anorexia.)

    Forgotten are the teachings of Jesus: "Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the splinter from other's eye, so you can at least see more clearly." Selfish ambition is actually a taught value in the secular world and adopted by many churches, although the churches pretend to partake in it "for the glory of God." Dissension, factions, and discord are the operating energies of many churches and Christian homes. They thrive on that instead of surrender to the leading of the Holy Spirit and crucifixion of the self. Jesus declared hatred to be on par with murder, and jealousy and envy to be just as despicable. But it's easy to hold up the alcoholic as a sinful, weak and unchristlike example of humanity when your own genetics don't include an addiction propensity and you can "take or leave" a drink at will. However, such condemnation is even more shameful when the person really believes his or her will is superior in strength (or more "godly") than the alcoholic's. He or she doesn't understand biology or Scripture.

    As Jesus told the religious leaders of Israel, let the church assembly that is without discord, dissension, factions, jealousy, cast the first stone of condemnation on others. Christ calls us into sanctification, which begins with ourselves. To judge is to invite being judged by the same measure we use. The measure Paul listed in his examples of the sinful nature should scare any Christian into the sackcloth of penitent sanctification.

    Indeed, scripture does articulate this bondage to sin in labored detail. No less of a herald of the Gospel than St. Paul wrote: "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do... As it is, it is no longer I myself who does it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who does it, but it is sin living in me that does it...I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members" (Romans 7:21-23, NIV). Knowing that "law" is better translated from the original language as "principle" or "force", how interesting and significant that Paul makes a distinction between the volition of his mind and body, and further specifies "members" of the body. Without the modern language to describe disordered genetics, he does well in pointing to what he may mean as the fundamental components or members of the body, our very cells, each containing flawed DNA that frustrates the will of our minds or consciences. Who of us cannot relate in some way to Paul's description of human behavior?

    Upon first giving the disclaimer that I do not propose the psychological language is an exact rendition of the question in the original Aramaic language or understanding of the times, let's consider a psychological or medical rendition of the disciples' question regarding the blind man: "Rabbi, what caused this man's blindness? Was it a birth defect or a disorder passed on from his parents?" Jesus replied, as you'll recall, "Neither. This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." Indeed, think of how many of us are inspired by those who have been risen triumphantly above their potentially crippling genetic loading; those who by the grace of God (though some think it's by their own will) escaped the slavery to a sinful nature that was driving them to destruction.

    So we are drawn back to Paul's concluding words: "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25, NIV). The eighth chapter of Paul's letter to the church in Rome is a remarkable treatise of the dynamics of sin in our lives, including even non-human creation that "was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (v. 20-21). Paul's language is in the present tense: "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs -- heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (v. 17). Our genetics and sinful natures predispose us to go for the glory and bypass the suffering. However, glory and victory, adversity and suffering, are inseparable and co-dependent. That blind man Jesus' disciples asked about could tell us a lot about that.

    Christ is our healer, our priestly intercessor, our redeemer, in this life as pilgrims on the earth and in our continued existence in the heavenly realms.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D
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